Silent Films All Actors Should Watch | Film History for Actors

Silent Films All Actors Should Watch

Written by on | The Acting Lifestyle

Whether you’re diehard cinema buff, or somebody who only watches Netflix Originals with “Christmas” in the title, silent films can be tough to watch. They can be confusing, overly demanding of your focus and keep you at arm’s length from the characters (who literally don’t communicate with one another). More often than not, they’re either a century old or depressing arthouse fare—neither of which you want at your next movie night with friends. However, when you sift through a hundred years of movies with no talking, there are some incredible gems in the pile. And this is doubly true if you’re an actor looking to learn some new tricks or learn about the rich history of your industry.

This is a list of 10 silent films all actors should watch—to understand the history of cinema, to broaden their horizons and to enrich their acting craft. While some of these silent films are challenging to watch, the majority are engaging and entertaining. The examples on this list range from silent-era films to contemporary works, hidden gems to landmark examples of the film medium.

Before we launch into the list, let’s start with a few questions worth asking—that is, if you haven’t asked them of yourself already…

What is a Silent Film?

Historically, ‘silent film’ refers to motion pictures made before the widespread adoption of synchronised sound technology. Dates for this era vary, but generally span from 1895—the date of the Lumieré Brothers’ first films—and 1927, the year Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was released. The rise of ‘talkies’ marked the greatest technological, artistic and industrial shift in the film industry to date.

In a wider (and contemporary) context, silent films are films that eschew spoken dialogue, either in part or in total throughout the runtime. Characters may still communicate, such as through sign language, and voices may still be heard by way of voice over or in music recordings. However, there is no firm ruling on what makes a film 100% ‘silent’.

Funnily enough, some film historians argue that there is no such thing as a truly silent film: if there wasn’t dialogue, there was music. If there wasn’t music, there were the sounds of the audience, the atmosphere of the venue (including the projector itself). For a time, the visuals took precedence over the soundtrack. But they never existed in alone, in a vacuum. Keep this in mind when you next watch a silent film: what did the original audience actually hear? What can you hear right now?

Why Should I Watch Silent Films?

Good question. Didn’t this whole scene peak, like, a hundred years ago? While that might be true, there are still a number of reasons you should be watching silent films, especially as an actor. First of all—and this is especially true of the older films on this list—it’s good to know the history of cinema. Know where the trends of the medium today were born, and what films and styles might be referenced by a contemporary director you work with (or hope to someday). Secondly, there are a number of fascinating, entertaining movies out there with zero dialogue : there’s a fair chance you’ll stumble across something you really enjoy.

But perhaps the best reason to watch silent films is for the acting. Seriously: hear us out on this point. Silent films are a terrific reminder that acting on screen doesn’t end at the neck—something most performers tend to forget when spewing dialogue in front of a camera. Take that dialogue away and ask yourself how you might convey your character’s thoughts and emotions? How have actors done so in the past, or elsewhere? In a film less grounded in gritty reality, what stylistic choices can you find in the silent era that might be an interesting take when performing a role today? Become an observer of the acting craft in silent films. Learn what you can and fold that into your own process!

10 Silent Films Actors Should Watch

Let’s get to it: 10 silent (or almost silent) films, presented in chronological order. As with any list on this site, please don’t forget that the selection below is our own opinion. If you feel as though we’ve missed something important, please don’t hesitate to send a hot take through to us!

#1 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Robert Wiene’s surreal horror masterpiece is remembered as the acme of German Expressionism. Its visual style has been referenced a thousand times over in the films that followed it—chances are, even if you’ve never heard of it, you’d recognise its graphic, angular sets and characters from a single glance. The story centres on an evil hypnotist who bewitches an innocent sleepwalker into committing murders. The sleepwalker, portrayed by a young Conrad Veidt, stalks through the film like a huntsman spider; it’s a must-watch for any actor hoping to broaden their physicality on stage or screen. Take the time to view The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and drink in its strangeness. Count how many references you can trace back to it, how many images seem oddly familiar. Most of all, appreciate that there will never be another film like it, only a sea of imitators chasing that same, warped dream.

#2 The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Another film on the list of “The most famous movies you’ve never actually watched”. Despite being almost a century old, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece feels oddly fresh to watch even today. He understood the symbolic visual power of the close-up, even in a time when he had to cut to a title card to convey what his characters were actually saying. Much of the film is trained on Reneé Jeanne Falconetti’s tortured face as the titular saint—her suffering is transmuted by long takes and strange eyelines into something almost beautiful (if certainly troubling). Every actor needs to see this film and understand the power they can have on screen if they know how to work with a camera. In the cinema canon, The Passion of Joan of Arc is as beloved and referenced as Caligari by contemporary filmmakers—everybody from David Fincher to Wes Anderson to Dave Eggers owes this film a hefty debt.

#3 Modern Times (1936)

It’s pretty much a guarantee Charlie Chaplin would end up on this list. What’s interesting about this particular film, however, is the release date: Modern Times came out a full nine years after The Jazz Singer dropped and spelled the death spiral for silent cinema. Chaplin resisted the transition to talkies—not only was he good at making silent pictures, they were a helluva lot easier to sell to his vast international audience without the language barrier. Modern Times pits his signature Tramp character against the perils of the new: industry, mechanisation, The Great Depression, the commodification of the common man. At the film’s climax, the Tramp finds himself singing at a restaurant. He loses the lyrics to the song he’s supposed to perform, prompting his love interest to tell him (via title card) “Sing!! Never mind the words.” And so he does. Chaplin’s improvised lyrics are nonsensical, and yet he still connects with his loving public—as if to suggest that dialogue on screen hardly matters at all. It’s a farewell to the silent era and a middle finger to the ubiquitous talkie all at once.

#4 Big Night (1996)

The first of our ‘modern’ selections on this list, Big Night is actually far from a silent film. That is, until its final, wordless, perfect scene. Two immigrant brothers attempt to save their failing restaurant by cooking the mother of all Italian feasts. While the food itself is triumphant, the evening is a disaster and ends with them screaming at each other and wrestling on the beach behind the restaurant—their lives in ruin and the future uncertain. The final scene, however, unfolds like a short stage play caught on film. A single shot hovers over the kitchen as they cook, eat and reconcile in silence. Not a single word is needed. Big Night is an underrated gem of American cinema; it’s a must-see for food lovers and actors alike.

#5 Juha (1999)

Juha, a film by Finland’s best-known director Aki Kaurasmäki, is an adaptation of a 1911 novel of the same name. Kaurasmäki’s films are famously light on dialogue—they are deadpan, laconic exercises in absurdism that unfold at a snail’s pace. They’re also hilarious, touching and uplifting stories (just in case the previous description had you ready to scroll on past this entry.) In Juha, he does away with dialogue all together, telling the melodramatic story of a man who loses his wife to a wealthy city slicker. The resulting film is, strangely, one of his most dynamic: the drama is conveyed by heightened physical action and the music used throughout is hypnotic, claustrophobic.

#6 Brand upon the Brain! (2006)

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is one of cinema’s greatest living treasures. Each film he crafts feels fresh and handmade—reaching back through history to shooting styles and images, long forgotten, in order to explore and subvert the new. Brand upon the Brain! is an exploration of Maddin’s (fictional) upbringing in an orphanage/lighthouse, told through nightmarish flashbacks, title cards and the odd voice-over and sound effect. While the influence of several films on this list can clearly be seen, Brand upon the Brain! really does defy any straightforward explanation or comparison. It’s best to, just, find a copy and take it all in. For all of his focus on himself and his past, Maddin is often classified as a pseudo-documentarian. A film like this is a fine reminder to actors that some of the best vehicles they can find for themselves come from within. Beyond all the artistic mastery, it’s worth mentioning that Maddin made the film for $40,000 and shot it all in nine days. What’s stopping you?

#7 There Will Be Blood (2007)

Another silent-but-not-silent entry on this list, Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic begins with almost twenty minutes of wordless action and character building. In front of our eyes, Henry Plainview evolves from lone prospector to oil man, encountering injury, danger and death along the way. He gains a limp, loses tools, gains a fortune, loses colleagues, gains a son … Plainview lives a lifetime in front of our eyes before his first line is ever spoken. It’s a great introduction to a man who spends the following two hours pushing everybody away; it binds us to the character, ensuring that we’re never left cold by his manner or deeds. The sequence is often compared to the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which apes literally evolve to the tool age. In some ways it’s more a prologue than it is a true beginning. But There Will Be Blood would be a far weaker film without it.

#8 The Artist (2011)

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring The Most Charming Actor Alive (Jean Dujardin), is a modern film shot in the style of a black and white silent picture. It’s a love letter to that long-gone era, and a tribute to the silent stars who struggled with the talkie transition. The Artist cleaned up at the 84th Academy Awards, collecting Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Dujardin. It enjoyed international praise and recognition … and then kinda faded from view. One of the issues it faced was its immense success—it ceased to become the underdog and was instead a highly praised film that perhaps wasn’t quite as good as anybody said it was (although what film is). But The Artist is definitely worth your time: performances are stellar and it ends with a superb nod to Modern Times‘ own dissection of the talkie craze. Plus, it contains one of the cutest dogs in all of cinema.

#9 The Tribe (2014)

The Tribe is a crime epic set at a boarding school for deaf students—performed in Ukrainian Sign Language without any subtitles. While this might sound challenging, the action of the film is gripping and performances so strong that meaning is never beyond the audience. You may not understands the words being signed, but you certainly understand the intention behind them and what each character wants. For any actor, this film is a must-watch in how objectives and actions can be played entirely without words. For any film lovers or filmmakers, it’s a unique piece of cinema that strips away dialogue at no cost to the drama.

CONTENT WARNING: The Tribe does contain scenes of graphic violence including sexual violence, as well as depiction of drug use and abortion.

#10 A Quiet Place (2018)

Okay, so this one’s a bit of a stretch: there are 25 lines of dialogue in A Quiet Place, and much of the film is signed in ASL with subtitles. But the majority of the film does take place without any dialogue at all; the result is a tense and terrifying work of science fiction. A Quiet Place is definitely worth your time if it’s a film you’ve missed—the performances are incredible and the central ‘gimmick’ of no dialogue never feels like a barrier between the audience and the story, or their enjoyment. You probably didn’t even think of the film as ‘silent’ when you watched or heard about it. If that’s the case, take the time to view it through this specific lens: study the concerted effort the actors are making to communicate and learn all you can from their efforts. A Quiet Place is a strong reminder that a silent film doesn’t have to be an artsy or harrowing experience.


About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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